Simon Bridges criticised for linking festival deaths to drug-testing service

National MP Simon Bridges has been accused of disrespecting families of the dead after linking fatalities at festivals over summer with drug-testing services, despite none of the deaths being linked to drug use. 

The Government last year temporarily legalised drug-testing services at music festivals, which had already been operating in a legal grey area for several years. That law is set to expire in December, but in April Health Minister Andrew Little said it would be made permanent

"The Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act 2020... is already having an impact," he said.

"It allows voluntary organisations like Know Your Stuff to test drugs at events like music festivals to verify they are what people think they are, without running foul of the law... and experts are telling us it should be made permanent." 

The Government's proposed replacement is the Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Bill, which among other changes, would make December's temporary law permanent. During the Bill's first reading in Parliament on Tuesday, Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare said Know Your Stuff found a lot of drugs sold as ecstasy/MDMA "were actually a dangerous synthetic cathinone called eutylone".

The Government's High Alert drug warning service says eutylone is a type of substance called a cathinone, and indistinguishable from MDMA to the naked eye - but because it produces a weaker high people tend to take more of it than is safe, leading to "intense, unpleasant and potential dangerous experiences".  

The deaths and Bridges' claims

There were three deaths at festivals this past summer: David Peterson, a 62-year-old audio engineer who was working at Gisborne's Rhythm and Vines; Fletcher Wong, a 19-year-old festival-goer, also at Rhythm and Vines; and 29-year-old Tuitu'u Junior Vaiangina, who was at the Hidden Valley Festival in Matakana.

Talking about the new Bill on Tuesday, Bridges said there had been a rise in deaths linked to drugs in the UK since festival testing was legalised there, and that MDMA was able to "kill" whether or not it had impurities in it. 

Bridges said studies showed use had gone up due to "false confidence around the safety of the pills", and "inextricably fatalities went up". He went on to link the Government's temporary lifting of the ban on drug-testing facilities to the three deaths. 

"There's been nothing since the law change at the end of the last year that comes anywhere within cooee of giving us an evidential picture in New Zealand that somehow this is safe. I want to be careful, but I do say, and I raised this issue over the Christmas period, there have been fatalities - more than I've ever seen - in and around summer festivals."

Criticism from a friend of the deceased

Journalist and drug campaigner Russell Brown was a friend of Peterson, the audio engineer who died at Rhythm and Vines. He took to social media to accuse Bridges of trying to "make political capital out of the death of a friend of mine", calling him a "desperate, lying scumbag".

"Bridges has previously implied there was something suspicious about Dave's death," Brown told Newshub. "He was on Twitter on New Year's Day demanding a 'full coronial investigation' and casting doubt on the word of 'sources' about what happened. The source was the police, for goodness sake."

Sources at the time said there was no known link to drugs in any of the deaths. Newshub has approached the coroner for comment, but nothing yet has been made public that would contradict the initial reporting. Bridges said in Parliament he'd sought information from the "Government, police, or any other agency" but hadn't received anything.

"Apart from Dave there were two, a 29 year-old man with a pre-existing heart condition at Hidden Valley and a teenager who went missing after leaving Rhythm 'n' Vines," said Brown. "Neither of those festivals had drug-checking services on site. Both of those deaths are with the coroner - and unless and until the coroner finds that MDMA, or any drug, was implicated, Bridges should show some decency and respect for their families.

"The irony is that the head of the National Drug Intelligence Bureau was at Parliament last week speaking warmly about the police partnership with 'our good friends' at Know Your Stuff."

Know Your Stuff confirmed to Newshub it wasn't at any of the festivals where the deaths occurred. A quarter of the MDMA it checked over summer at festivals where it was present turned out to be cathinones.

"We find it disappointing that Bridges is attempting to exploit these tragedies to support his opposition to drug checking, and would much prefer that the debate around this stuck to facts," said managing director Wendy Allison. 

Bridges' defence 

Approached on Thursday, Bridges defended his statements, telling Newshub Brown's comments had "no resemblance to what I stated in Parliament". 

Told Know Your Stuff wasn't at the festivals where the deaths occurred, Bridges said: "Full information about fatalities, appropriately taking into account privacy and so on, is important regardless."

During Tuesday's debate, ACT leader David Seymour said many of those who'd died in the UK did so after drinking too much water, which Bridges said showed MDMA could kill even without impurities. Unlike alcohol MDMA is anti-diuretic, meaning users hold water in - but it also increases users' body temperature, prompting potentially lethal levels of water intake. 

Seymour said while he isn't sure how harmful MDMA is compared to legal drugs like alcohol, he supports drug testing at festivals. 

"If people want to come out and voluntarily help each other avoid harm, that would be very odd thing for a Parliament to try and ban... It's a little bit like abortion and free speech - it's not that I think any of those things are good things, I just think that Government prohibitions do more harm than good. 

"It's very much the same with the drug testing.... I wouldn't necessarily say [they're great]... my role as an MP is to vote on laws, and I wouldn't vote for a law that prohibited it." 

Ecstasy gives feelings of euphoria to users.
Ecstasy gives feelings of euphoria to users. Photo credit: Getty Images

The research 

Drug-testing agencies have been allowed to operate at festivals in the UK since 2016. That year, there were 63 Ecstasy-related deaths in England and Wales in total - not just at festivals - only about half of which could be attributed to ecstasy alone. The following year the total death toll dropped to 56. In 2018 there were 92, and in 2019, 78. 

The rise comes as drug-related deaths across the UK have been rising however, so could be part of a larger trend and not related to pill-testing at all. In recent years ecstasy has become increasingly strong, with some experts saying first-time users could run into trouble by taking a much bigger dose than they intended. 

A 2016 study by the Ministry of Health ranked MDMA as the least harmful illicit recreational drug for both users and the community, just behind LSD and cannabis. The worst were meth, heroin, opioids, cocaine and synthetic cannabinoids. 

During the debate, National MPs cited research they said showed even pure MDMA could kill, and that drug-testing didn't reduce harm. 

The first was by researchers at the University of New South Wales, which looked at 392 MDMA-related deaths between 2000 and 2018.

"What that research showed is not one, zero, were caused by impurities in the ecstasy that they used; zero," said Nick Smith. 

Allison of Know Your Stuff said Dr Smith "misrepresented" the study's findings, which actually show only 14 percent were due to MDMA toxicity alone. Nearly half - 48 percent - of the deaths were the result of "multiple drug toxicity" and 38 percent "other causes", mostly car accidents.

The second study was conducted at Deakin University, also in Australia. Simeon Brown said it showed "there have been 'no studies [which] have fully tested in a controlled way, whether pill testing reduces harm'."

Despite this, the paper "recommends the integration of pill testing into Australia's harm minimisation strategy", noting that "abstinence is a goal that displays ignorance of reality".

"Most notably, pill testing has been shown to positively affect users' behaviour, contradicting claims often used as the rationale for criminalisation that ‘soft’ options encourage increased uptake and use, particularly among youth," it said.

Brown said there is "no doubt" Know Your Stuff's work "prevented many hospitalisations and potentially deaths this past summer".

"Perhaps Bridges should consult the police on this before sounding off again."